Friday, February 29, 2008
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Spent much of the past two nights doing final, final (really, we hope) final edits on the proposal to go out to publishers--yep, actual editors at publishing houses--sometime early next week.Up since 2 a.m. today finalizing text and trying to write the bowling story. Going back and forth when one task became too fatiguing. Sent the bowling story off at 9 a.m., then edited it at 11 by phone. And then hit the send button to push the indecent proposal of 83 pages and 22,000 words off to the agency at noon.
Whew. Then off to the station to voice tracks after another flurry of emails to try and nail down the pronunciation of one of the guys in the story.
This among a blizzard of emails about titles. Spent a stunning 40 minutes in conference call yesterday trying to "nail down" the title. This while noting and having noted to me that the publishing house, should we be so lucky as to secure a contract, will in fact pick the title. This is how the nonfiction biz works. And it should, too. They have the whole marketing machine of know-how behind them, right? And yet. The phone calls and emails continued. Don't know what we were doing, actually. Except arguing the merits of tepid and incredibly long, or bizarre or boring, or zingy but meaningless titles. And moving the commas around on the final draft.
THE EXERCISE: Chant to self: It will end. It will end. It will go out and be OK. Really.
SECONDARY EXERCISE: Feel gratitude. Radio reporting. Book proposal nearly done. Essays in circulation. It doesn't suck. It doesn't.
Yesterday was week two of the Memoir Project in Mattapan. We had 28 seniors, eighteen in one room and ten in the other.
In this class, the idea is to get the seniors to write as much as possible. We give them notebooks and pens and then offer up prompts. And then I wander the room and help them get started. Some people get stuck when asked to write about themselves.
Then we ask them to share, which for me is the best part. The first prompt of the day was to write about an object from your childhood home. Could be anything. They were to describe the object first and then zoom out to tell the story behind it.
One man stood up and talked about how his mother used to make carrot marmalade. No one else had ever heard of it. He said, if you can find it, please send me some.
One woman wrote about an old Essex car that was her family's car and how they would squeeze ten people into it to drive around on Sundays. Every adult had a child on his or her lap and they would put stools on the floor of the back seat for a child to sit on.
One man wrote about collecting whisky bottles to give to the drug store because they would be recycled and used to store turpentine. He would get a penny for each bottle, and if he found five, the drug store owner would give him a nickel, "Which was a lot of money," he said. Then one day the boy got ambitious and went out and collected a whole sack of those bottles. He loaded them into his wagon and brought them to the store, but the store owner wanted to pay him a nickel for the whole bag. So he sold the guy two bottles for two cents and took the rest home where he stored them under the porch. That same day, the landlord came to collect the rent. While the boy's grandmother went off to get the rent, the landlord looked under the porch and found the sack of bottles. When the grandmother came back the landlord backed away, saying, "I'm sorry ma'am. I didn't know you had a problem." When the grandmother looked under the porch, well, said the guy in class. "I couldn't sit down for a week."
One woman wrote about her mother being a personal maid, a lady's maid, to a wealthy woman in Bermuda. She said the rich family her mother worked for had their own carriage, their own boat. They had a room in their house just for shoes. And in the summer, the family would move off to their summer home and her family could live in the giant house and take care of it.
Another woman wrote about going to see a movie about Anne Frank and being so inspired that she decided to keep her own journal. She didn't have a real diary, or even a notebook, so she stitched together pieces of paper into a makeshift notebook and kept track of the comings and goings of family members. It kept her sane during some very turbulent early years of her life.
One man wrote about his grandparents and the spittoons they had in every room. He said his grandmother could hit that spittoon from any point in the room, dead on. On one occasion his grandfather sent the boy off to get his pipe. When the boy returned with both the corn cob pipes he found on a dresser, the grandfather took one and rejected the other, saying, "That's your grandma's pipe."
THE EXERCISE: Write about an object from your childhood or your home. First, describe the object, then tell the story behind it. It can be an object that was of great importance to any member of your family or an object that you associate with someone else.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The thing about reporting is that not everything that gets observed or written down makes it into the story. In many cases, what gets left out is more of a real story than what goes in.
I remember covering a football team years ago. I covered them for a whole season and I remember that the coach would always cry during his pre-game speeches. I tried putting that in the story several times, and it always got cut. Once, I included some of the sound of the speech itself, and you could sort of tell, but I was never allowed to say it in the story.
Anyway, as I log bowling tape, I remember this exchange between the security guard who was watching the door at the beginning of the night, and the manager of the bowling alley. I have some of it on tape. You have to imagine three of us standing outside a bowling alley in the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 35th and 8th (I think). Disco music in the background along with the sound of falling pins. The manager asks the guard if he knew that they caught a couple having sex in the bathrooms. Twice. The manager kicked the couple out of the bowling alley and then a bit later came back in and they were back at it.
The guard's response was, "What did she look like?" Then, "Were they Indian?"
The manager said, "I don't know."
The guard was busy remembering. "Yeah, but like, she was lighter than him, right?"
Made me wonder if the guard caught them, too, although he didn't admit that. Then the guard turned to me. "It's always the men's room," he says. "Because women, they'll scream. But guys, they'll just watch. Get out the camera phone. It's true."
I'm sure it is. There is no way that this is going in the story or anywhere near it, but it made me laugh.
Monday, February 25, 2008
The philosopher Roger-Pol Droit wrote an engaging little book called Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life. Long title, short book. In it, he outlines different mini experiments in changing your point of view a bit. One of them is to sit in a room alone and call out your own name, call it as though you are calling someone who can't hear you. You are to do this periodically and repeatedly, then insistently, for about 20 minutes, or until you get that spooky feeling that you are actually calling someone else. I tried it in my little hotel room in NYC a few weeks ago, while waiting to go interview Broadway's bowlers. It was creepy and interesting all at once. For just a few seconds each time I felt that I was calling to someone else, and that the someone else was me.
In another experiment, called "Dread the Arrival of the Bus," he urges readers to take a seat at a bus stop and then imagine that the bus isn't coming. It has broken down. "You're going to be late. You must find an alternative means of transportation, provide explanations, telephone people to warn them, even change your timetable. The entire day may put put out, every meeting will have to be pushed back." Then he asks readers to embellish this scenario. "Maybe the bus will arrive, but driven by terrorists, stuffed with dynamite, and with no brakes left...The driver is an extraterrestrial, and the passengers are all in league with him. All those who got on at the preceding stops have already met their deaths with bloodcurdling screams."
I like this. Feeling fear is something most people avoid. And to do that, we avoid so many experiences. During the process of interviewing those bowlers, the alley was so loud that I had to turn the microphone down. There is a button on the minidisc recorder that allows you to make the microphone less sensitive. You toggle the switch to blunt the mic when the environment is too loud. I used that button and a similar one on my own emotions, I toggled down the fear and with it part of the experience. For the past three weeks, the recorder has been sitting next to my bed, untouched. Why? Because I'm afraid to listen to those interviews, afraid to be found wanting as a reporter, terrified that there's no story there, that I won't be able to turn anything in, that I'll have to sheepishly admit to my editor and to the people I bothered that night for their opinions that I didn't do a good job.
Among the list of things that can and do go wrong in life, these fears are so minor as to be laughable, and yet they have simmered in my mind all these weeks. Then last week the show's producer called asking after the story. Time to face the fear. And so I sat in it for a few minutes, imagining everything that could go wrong, exaggerating it, stewing it it as much as I could stand. And then I took out the recorder, put on the headphones and pressed the play button. It wasn't nearly as bad as I feared. How could it be?
Sure, that's me asking the stupid questions with my voice strangled by anxiety. Yep, that's the moment when I should have taken ambient sound but didn't. And oh yeah, that sweet quote is going to be unusable because, like an idiot, I stepped on the end of it, or turned the mic away from the guy speaking. Yep, that's me giving up on an interview just as it was getting interesting because I was afraid to ask a more pointed question. The same mistakes, in short, that I often make when gathering sound. And yet, they're not fatal. At least I hope not. Once, years ago, I was working on a football story, covering this huge and important high school football game. I carried with me an old Marantz analog recorder that weighed about 25 pounds. Just at the last moments of the game, the final plays really, the thing cut out. Out. Gone. Bye, bye sound. The batteries had kicked and I had no replacement batteries that worked. Holy, holy, sh*t, sh*t, sh*t. No post game interviews. No nothing. Just game sound that cuts to silence. Story was due the next morning.
I went home and logged tape and magically wrote around it. It helped that people I was covering were themselves great characters. Just before the last play of the game, a running back who was nearly flunking out of high school turned to a referee. They were both standing near the end zone, and the player took in the cheering crowd, the snow falling, the tension of this last deciding play in which his team absolutely had to score, and he looked at the ref and said, "Is this great or what?" Seconds later, he caught the football in the end zone. Game over. I didn't have the sound, so I just described it, but turned it around so I told the ending of the game first and then ended the story on the player saying that to the ref, so we could end on the game sound, the sound I had.
Fortunately for me, the editor loved the ending. Maybe something that will happen again this week. Maybe, except that nothing's at stake in this story. It's just bowling. Oy.
I braved the library to revisit my old friend Nancy. What a surprise this was, for reasons I didn't anticipate.
The first chapter of the very first mystery begins with Nancy driving along the road. In this long, long series of stories, we meet Nancy for the first time thusly:
Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible. She had just delivered some legal papers for her father.
"It was sweet of Dad to give me this car for my birthday," she thought. "And it's fun to help him in his work."
Her father, Carson Drew, a well-known lawyer in their home town of River heights, frequently discussed puzzling aspects of cases with his blond, blue-eyed daughter.
Smiling, Nancy said to herself, "Dad depends on my intuition."
OK. So, this is quite light and sweet, a bit too sweet. Not only are there no foundling dragon eggs or young boy wizards waiting to find their secret heritage, there's no drama at all. Until, "an instant later" Nancy gasps in horror as a girl runs in front of a moving van. Over the next few pages we find that the girl is unhurt; that she is an orphan cared for by kindly great-aunts; that the aunts were swindled by the moving van guys, who stole their furniture, including a favorite old clock; and that the great-aunts were also swindled by a lawyer representing the estate of someone who was to leave them lots of money to help care for the girl. And we learn that the lawyer in question is the father of two girls at school who haven't been very nice to Nancy in the past. Too much coincidence in eight pages? Not if you're ten years old. Also, we learn that there is a missing will. Get it? The will that would give the money to the nice old ladies is missing. Given that the title of the book is The Secret of the Old Clock--wink, wink--I'm pretty sure I know where the will is, even though I haven't read this book in thirty years. And that's everything up to page 8.
More surprising still, were the sudden shifts of point of view (these were written by underpaid ghostwriters, not MFA candidates). Also, throughout each story Nancy is treated like a prom queen who can do no wrong, and who lives an a haze of sparkling earnestness that would shame a 1950s sit com writer. The fact that they employ a loving and emotionally fulfilled housekeeper named Hannah is just the beginning. A longish example, beginning of chapter three:
"What are your plans for this morning, Nancy?" her father asked at the breakfast table.
"I thought I'd do a little shopping," she replied. Her eyes twinkled. "There's a dance coming up at the country club and I'd like to get a new dress."
"Then will you phone me about lunch? Or better still, how about eating with me, whether Mr. Rolsted comes or not?"
"I'll be there!" Nancy declared gaily.
"All right. Drop in at my office about twelve thirty. If Mr. Rolsted does accept my invitation, we'll try to find out something about Josiah Crowley's wills." Mr. Drew pushed back his chair. "I must hurry now or I'll be late getting downtown."
After her father had left, Nancy finished her breakfast, then went to the kitchen to help Hannah Gruen, who had already left the table.
"Any errands for me? Nancy asked.
"Yes, dear. Here's a list," the housekeeper replied. "And good luck with your detective work."
Hannah Gruen gazed at the girl affectionately and several thoughts raced through her mind. In school Nancy had been very popular and had made many friends. But through no fault of her own she had made to enemies, Ada and Isabel Topham. This worried Hannah. The sisters, intensely jealous of Nancy, had tried to discredit her in positions she had held in school. But loyal friends had always sprung to Nancy's defense. As a result, Ada and Isabel had become more unpleasant than ever to Nancy.
OK. Has anyone ever declared anything gaily? Not me. The stew of ingredients here is just intoxicating. We have a mother figure, who indulges but never mothers (in a frenzy of rage-aholic, peri-menopausal narcissism) because she's not a mother. And yet she knows every nuance of Nancy's social life. We have an indulgent dad who encourages her to visit his office and help him (without being imperious, distracted or oversexed). Is there a nicer, less threatening guy on the planet? We have a girl who drives a new convertible, gift from said dad, and shops at will, and who is popular in school, has no social concerns except that two unfair girls did something vaguely wrong to her, but no matter, because she was rescued by admiring friends. I mean, to troubled little girl readers everywhere, this must once have been literary crack cocaine. I know it was for me. Nancy was a little placeholder in our imaginations before Jane Eyre came along and showed us our rage.
THE EXERCISE: Declare something gaily today. No. Just kidding. Let us step inside this haze of earnest living and find out how hard it is to pull off. Rewrite a scene from a story, a memoir, or just from life. In this snippet--just a couple hundred words if it hurts too much--the protagonist can do no wrong. Everyone must be excruciatingly polite to everyone else. Blandness rules conversations. Then at one point, you shift perspective. Another character must tilt his or her head and look deeply and compassionately into the heart of the protagonist and care. Sounds funny, right? Try it.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Two big things happened yesterday. OK, more than that because life is a dynamic and magical mystery tour. Too many things happened yesterday to recount...
For one, I was driving to teach last night and watched a giant harvest moon come up out of the clouds. This while inching along behind an SUV on Rte. 9. Still, I thought, "How romantic." I did. I looked at that big shimmering disc with all the little spots visible on it and thought that a person really could worship the moon.
Also, Sammie turned 4. Finally! She was so thrilled. We sent popsicles with her to preschool in the morning, and in the afternoon she came home wearing a paper crown like she was born to it. Actually, she came home carrying a spare crown. I don't know how she talked her teachers into that. But I'm pretty sure she could talk the Pope out of his crown, if she ever met him.
In the morning I went off to teach in Mattapan. More on this later. Twenty nine senior citizens showed up to begin writing their memoirs. During a break, I recounted Sammie's birth, the labor pains, the whole thing to Sonya, who works at Grub and who was helping out with the class. I can't explain why I did this, except to say that some of the stretch marks you bear from having children are in your brain and they cause you to do incredibly rude things, such as retelling a birth story four years out to people who can't possibly want to hear it, but who are too nice to say so.
But, one of my favorite bits of that story is when I'm having an email exchange with a doctor. This is the guy with whom I was writing a book at the time. We were finished, really, and were answering all the queries, good ones, from the copy editor. But each one of these queries reminded the doc of all the technical (boring!) stuff he wanted to add to the text. And he was going on and on about how we had to change chapter five to include all this stuff about the sympathetic nervous system. I remember answering him while having pre-labor contractions. Really reasoned arguments and all, about not boring the absolute bejesus out of the reader, but he was insisting. And I finally got fed up and wrote something like, "Look, I'm kind of having contractions here; can we just move this along?" And then I realized that I hadn't actually seen him in the past year, because his practice is in New York, and hadn't actually mentioned the pregnancy at all. I know this sounds weird, but it never came up. He's a great, really smart guy. I liked working with him. We just never chatted. That was probably sort of a mean way for me to break the news, but I was really, really pregnant at that point, and the hormonal toxicity was no match for the little slice of emotional stability I had left.
Plus, it's a really funny story now. Can't be sorry about that.
Came home from Mattapan to find what in the mailbox? My latest royalty check from that book. I'm not going to reveal how little I was paid to write that 300 page book, because it's too shameful. However, I will say that I have had some nice mid-three-figure royalty checks from this book. OK, only one or two of those, and a couple more in the low three figure range. I don't complain, because getting any royalty check under any circumstances is like finding money in the street. Think about it; the work is already done and gone and forgotten. The pain of writing the book is like a labor pain. I can't really remember it.
I opened the envelope to find that it's in fact a "royalty statement." The check is supposed to come under "separate cover." This directly from the accounting firm. OK. But the amount is priceless: $8.81. Almost enough to take myself out to lunch. Almost.
I think I'll go put on one of Sammie's crowns.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Had coffee with my friend, Clare, the other day. She talked about her daughter, Elizabeth, who goes by E, and who loves to read. Loves it. They can't keep enough books in the house for E to read. Consequently, Clare is always casting about for new books to bring home. E is just 8 but reads at a much higher level. I wondered aloud if it weren't time to introduce Nancy Drew mysteries. What a treat that would be, to read your first Nancy Drew mystery again.
"We tried that," said Clare. "Too boring."
I must have expressed my astonishment more forcefully than intended, because she looked up from her coffee and gave me a tight nod. "It's true," she said. "Nothing happens in those books for pages and pages. It's frustrating."
"I loved her," I said. I did. I have the clearest memories of the yellow hardback covers, of going to the bookstore to pick out a new one on whatever special occasion, a birthday or a Christmas or something. I remember reading them in bed, in the back seat of the car on the way to the mall while eating these little candy raspberries. My parents were forever going to the mall. They shopped as a hobby. I hated the mall. Still do.
But more than that, I remember how they offered escape. Nancy Drew appeared in my life when I was E's age, maybe a little older, right after my parents had set off a series of grenades in our lives. They'd divorced, moved, taken on all-consuming careers. They feuded with each other without speaking, and expected their children to help them hate each other. They drank lots and were having sex with just God knows who. It was the 70s, a time when adults who'd been married during the summer of love took the chance to loop back and catch up on all the fun. But not Nancy Drew. She still lived in the 50s, with her tasteful pumps and sensible bob. She drove a convertible and figured things out. Important things for which adults were grateful. I explained all this to Clare, how Nancy worked in her father's law firm and had this boyfriend, Ted.
"Ned," said Clare.
"Ned?" Like it mattered. "The point is, he adored her and stayed out of her way. Two sterling qualities in a boyfriend."
Clare was nodding. "Boring," she said.
Perhaps that was the allure. I needed gentle little adventures starring a plucky girl, nothing like me, who figures things out and who only has to deal with one kind of creepiness, the darkened back stairs with cobwebs and whatnot, rather than relatives with wandering hands and all the other kinds of creepiness so prevalent in the 70s.
Nancy Drew was a placeholder for me, a reliable story type in which to escape. I went from her to Ray Bradbury (not so big a leap as it sounds) to what? Other science fiction, some fantasy. But who were the names? Then folk tales by the thousands. Then what? A quick tour of the genres, romance, mystery. Which ones? Then best-sellers. Then literary fiction.
THE EXERCISE: Perform a reader's archaeology. Walk yourself through the authors and titles that took you through adolescence and into adulthood. Who made you a reader, and what roles did these books play in your life, in your imagination?
Saturday, February 16, 2008
In the introduction to A Writer's Notebook, Maugham praises the notebooks of another writer, Jules Renard. It's interesting that wastes no praise on Renard's novels, which he says he found pedestrian in quality. He might say boring, actually. However, Renard's notebooks, he finds flawless.
"It is a notebook kept for the purposes of his calling by a professional writer who passionately sought truth, purity of style and perfection of language. As a writer no one could have been more conscientious. Jules Renard jotted down neat retorts and clever phrases, epigrams, things seen, the sayings of people and the look of them, descriptions of scenery, effects of sunshine and shadow, everything, in short, that could be of use to him when he sat down to write for publication; and in several cases, as we know, when he had collected sufficient data he strung them together into a more or less connected narrative and made a book of them."
Maugham goes on to say that he never cared for any of those book strung together by Renard. And in fact, reiterates the notion that a writer should keep a notebook as long as he never refers to it. He feels that a writer gets practice in noticing, in separating sensations from the herd, by writing notes. By referring to them in actual work, the writer gives these details too much power to sway the narrative of a story.
I don't know how I feel about this. But then I never traveled as extensively as Maugham has, nor do I intend to write about foreign cultures. I'd be very surprised if he never referred to his notes while writing The Painted Veil, but surely his memory is better than mine. The reason I should never refer to an old notebook because I'll see in its pages all the stories I planned to write but never did.
Larry called from work yesterday and the first thing out of his mouth was, "Are you interested in being a whore?"
Not the sort of conversation starter I'm used to from my husband, but we've known each other a long time, so it's OK.
"Do I get a trip out of it?" Naturally, I envisioned a stay in a posh hotel in some cosmopolitan locale. Write about the marble bathrooms and room service.
"No," he said. "It's advertorial stuff."
Well, that is whoredom, and not the classy kind, either. The kind where you wear a thong and nothing else under your ratty fake fur as you totter along the boulevard in pinching platforms. (Like in all those late night HBO "documentaries" about prostitution. Or is it Cinemax? I get the dirty shows confused). No room service, no tense dinner with the pr person named Jasmine or Felicia or whatever as she details the plasma screen TV upgrade in the suites. Nothing but a couple of phoners to some guy wearing a bad toupee (you can tell this on the phone) to get pointers about how to choose a financial advisor or how to check the provenance of a piece of art. And yet, the magazine I've worked for these past four years just got sold and the editor I adore was let go. That's what they call it, letting go. We're letting go of you, and you are letting go of your salary. Well, I have been let go by proxy from a semi-steady income.
Larry paused, maybe out of embarrassment. "Two hundred fifty words. Buck a word. Maybe five hundred words, depending on how many ads sell."
My stomach flipped. Why don't they just throw a couple quarters on the ground? This is not a step forward. This won't fill in any gaps.
Larry waited. "I'll send you the guy's number. Call him if you want."
What are my choices?
Thursday, February 14, 2008
In 1949, Somerset Maugham published A Writer's Notebook, which was a collection of notes from the 15 notebooks he kept from his first days in medical school in 1892 through the early 1940s. He did not publish it because he felt that every one of his notes deserved publication. On the contrary, he admits in the introduction that some of his old observations had come to seem foolish to him. "I publish it because I am interested in the technique of literary production and in the process of creation, and if such a volume as this by some other author came into my hands I should turn to it with avidity."
I'm first struck by how much he worked on technique. On some pages he seems to be practicing how to describe things. For pages at a time, he sets down ideas about light and dark, how the dawn looks, how the city sounds. And he practices noting not just how things appear in the world, but how to tease out philosophical meaning or emotion from objects.
"The wind, sinister and ghostly, rustled like a sightless animal through the topmost, leafless branches."
"The lamp flickered like the last wandering glance of a man at the point of death."
"In the country the darkness of night is friendly and familiar, but in a city, with its blaze of lights, it is unnatural, hostile and menacing. It is like a monstrous vulture that hovers, biding its time."
In early journals, he sets out these small observances, some dozen at a time on a topic of the approaching dawn or of his philosophy about the world, about how people get along. While referring to the wind as a sightless animal might now seem, well, overblown, Maugham was working on something specific in his voice. In the introduction to this book of old notebooks, he writes, "A novel cannot be made of facts alone; in themselves they are dead things. Their use is to develop an idea or illustrate a theme, and the novelist not only has the right to change them to suit his purpose, to stress them or leave them in shadow, but is under the necessity of doing so."
THE EXERCISE: Practice describing things in one or two lines. Then practice teasing out emotional or philosophical meaning. That means describe the same thing several different times, giving the description different attitudes. My notebooks tend toward journal-like stories and dreams and complaints. Yesterday, I tried to describe, to catch, what was going on in the pool during Garret's swimming lesson. What do kids actually do in a swimming pool? I tried it out and was almost immediately discouraged and filled with terror. Two lines in I ran out of words. I sat in silence for 20 minutes and a few ideas came to me, but so slowly. Clearly, I need more practice.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The word of the day is: enfilade. It refers to a military action. It means to direct a volley of gunfire along a line. Apparently, it also means a series of rooms in which the doors all line up.
It also means that my vocabulary is far smaller, and dirtier, than I ever imagined.
Heard it this morning while listening to Professor Garrett Fagan's series of lectures, called Great Battles of the Ancient World recorded by the Teaching Company. Because Fagan hails from Dublin and has the elegant Irish accent to prove it, I first heard this word as en "fellate," which would indeed be a very odd battle tactic. He used it to refer to the siege defense tactic of firing weapons down from the windows of a tower. So you're firing down the line of the building and hitting people who are trying to breach or climb the walls. (I think). Found all that out later. In the moment of listening to the lecture, I was so confused (aroused?) by this word or what I thought it was, that I had to jump down off the treadmill, run home and look it up. Ancient warfare is a crazy business. Anything is possible. Oh, not fellate. Enfilade. Well, that's totally different. All better.
Fagan is an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Penn State and he is just the sort of charismatic smarty-pants that characterizes the Teaching Company lectures and makes them so addictive. He's really good at dialing into the details of the weaponry and the jingoistic battle accounts written for the kings by sycophants. And then he dials right back out to detail the vitriolic battles between camps of scholars who espouse this or that theory about the past. These are sometimes more fun to hear about than the skirmishes they study.
I got this course out of the library because I sat through the movie 300 and had no idea what actually took place in it, aside from the killing of men and the stacking of bodies and the fact that a certain Scottish actor can yell the word Sparta! with his mouth just abnormally wide. Perhaps foolishly, I thought that a little historical context might explain things. With the movie now long forgotten, I've become enthralled by the whole subject of ancient warfare. I can pound out endless miles with Fagan's lilting syllables in my ears.
He has another course on Roman emperors, one that promises to be a rip-roarin' good time. New words galore.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
This morning Larry delivered the question of the week. He was sitting in the living room, pecking away on his editor's letter.
I hear typing, typing. Then Larry calls out, "Is Valentine's Day this week?"
Larry: We don't celebrate that, do we?
Me: Um, no.
We've never done the valentine thing. This compelled me to walk into the living room and inquire further.
Me: Why would you even ask that?
Larry: Just checking.
I know what he means. V-day is the sort of event that seems to require some action. The giant wind tunnel of popular culture says: Declare your love on this day, preferably using whole landfills of preprinted cards, and waxy chocolates in big boxes. We've always ignored it. Still, he's prudent to double check. This is good marital communication.
The only reason I know it's Valentine's Day this week is because the kids have to have paper valentines created, signed, labeled and delivered to school by Thursday, or else. Also, there's some sort of holiday celebration at kindergarten that involves cookies and frosting and juice boxes and who knows what all, to be coordinated by parent volunteers. I read the memo of detailed instructions for parents and thought: Holiday? This isn't a holiday; it's a nuisance.
But, then, kids love holidays. The sillier, the better as far as they're concerned. So, it's princess valentines for her and Transformer valentines for him. And through them Larry and I can feel like we got on board the big old valentine bandwagon--in the smallest possible way.
Beginning final (we hope) revisions on the proposal, which now clocks in at over 80 pages, more than 22,000 words. If the revisions get turned around by Friday, there is a chance that the proposal will go out into the editorial world by March 1st.
Monday, February 11, 2008
It's another Monday. Although the G-man has school, Sammie stays home. We go to her gymnastics class. We go to her swim lesson. After her lesson, we play in the pool a bit, then sit in the whirlpool, then blow dry her hair and make a pony tail. We have some lunch. If things are going really well, we might squeeze in a trip to the store. Then we begin the watch for Garret's bus. We get ready for his gymnastics class. When he gets off the bus, we have a snack, then take him to gymnastics, along with lots of books, crayons and assorted distractions for her, because sitting for an hour when you're three (almost four!) is just hard.
But mostly we talk all day. Little Sammie is a talker. She likes to chat and then discuss. And then she likes to recap. Anything worth saying is worth saying five, six times in a row. No nuance is too small.
These are pretty.
Yep, they sure are.
Mommy? Aren't these pretty?
Mommy? Mommy? These slippers are pretty.
Yes, very pretty.
Mommy? Do you know why they are pretty?
Um. No. Because they're pink?
Um. Yes. Mommy? Mommy?
Mommy, do you like pink?
I do like pink. Do you like pink?
I like pink, too. Mommy!
Mommy, we both like pink.
Mommy, I like pink and you like pink.
Yes. All true.
Um. Mommy? Mommy?
These are my pretty pink slippers.
Mommy! Look at them!
I'm looking, honey. Mommy just needs to run upstairs for a second (and jump out the window.)
She is precocious and hilarious and can say the word Mommy (or Daddy) every twenty to forty five seconds for about six hours in a row. Neither Larry and I do much talking, so we don't know quite how to cope with her wall of sound.
So, of course trying to do any writing on a day like this is a struggle. By the time we get home from gymnastics class, it's nearly five and I'm in a mad dash over dinner and battling chat fatigue.
THE EXERCISE: Set small goals. Pick a scene from any story or essay and write three sentences, a beginning, a middle and an end. Remember that even the tiniest step is progress.
Friday, February 8, 2008
John Dufresne's The Lie That Tells The Truth is a great beginning guide to fiction writing. It contains tons of prompts plus pithy advice. For example, on being afraid to write because your attempts are awful, "You aren't perfect. Neither is your writing. Get over it. Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor." I like that.
OK, then. One of his prompts is to re-write a celebrity encounter. Everyone has had some brush with the famous, either good or bad. He says you should think about what happened, and then "Imagine that what happened was not all that happened. Imagine that the pair of you were tossed together by fate." It's a scene of what might have happened after the original encounter. But this time, you help the celebrity change a flat tire or find her keys or steal something. This is a story containing a character like you and a character like the celebrity you met.
I tried the opposite. If the celebrity encounter is imminent and unavoidable, I wondered, what would happen if I wrote out possible outcomes beforehand? That's what I did for several hours on the train to New York City. I wrote five of them, all disastrous. Well, at first all disastrous. Somehow disaster satisfies like no other outcome. It soothes and energizes at the same time. (People who smoke tell me that this is what cigarettes do, too.) So, in one I was so nervous that I puked on him. And fainted. And had to be carried out on a stretcher with no dignity and no story. In another I waited too long to interview him. Avoided him until late, too late, because he was drunk. Roaring drunk. And I mean Peter O'Toole drunk. And while I tried to interview him he ignored me at first. The he stole the microphone, ripping it out of the kit and hiding it. Then he accidentally clothes-lined me in some sort of broad gesture to someone across the room. In a third version he didn't show up at all. In the fourth, he politely declined to speak to me, saying that other people deserve attention, but I wouldn't take the hint. I continued to insist, and he continued to deflect until we both became rude and upset.
In the fifth version, I was more moderate. In this version, I did my job of talking to lots of different people. When I approached him, he did his job of answering questions in a polite and perfunctory way. The evening ended without incident. Perhaps this was the saddest version of all. (Sadder still, because this is pretty much how it actually played out.)
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Found one. Well, sort of. Dorothy Dunnett to the rescue. Her novel, The Game of Kings features Francis Crawford of Lymond, who is referred to only as Lymond, is a sort of rascally nobleman who gets into all sorts of trouble in Scotland, circa 1547-ish. I've had this on the shelf for years, a gift from someone. Can't remember who. Maybe it's time to read it.
Anyway, on page 424:
"Admitted through the gate, he guided his horse toward Acheson, smiling, and drawing abreast, bent down to address him.
"Only one of the four men standing around them saw the twelve inches of steel in Lymond's hand, and he shouted too late. Acheson took the stab full in the chest, propelled backward with the force of the blow; then the blank amazement in his face gave place to vindictive fury. He straightened. The dagger, falling from the rent cloth over his breast, betrayed the sparkle of chain mail beneath. Acheson was unhurt, and five men leaped on Lymond.
"There was one weapon left to him. Driving his feet hard into the mare's flanks, Lymond dragged her soft mouth back and guided her plunging hoofs. Acheson, isolated under the iron soffit of the rearing horse, screamed once, the blood leaping from a great cut on the temple, before he was kicked to the ground.
"There was just time for Lymond to see as much before he, too, was overpowered."
Funny thing is that I don't really know who this Acheson guy is, and I'm not sure I care. If two people are fighting over a clause in a prenup, or some hurt feelings from long ago, then the writer has lots of explaining to do. When someone stabs someone else, or tries to, the reasons are nearly irrelevant.
Also, the writing here controls the pace. I would have been tempted to use short sentences all along to speed things up. Dunnett does not. There is only one short sentence. He straightened. And it occurs right where it needs to be. For the rest, she favors lots of clauses and a semi-colon, Lord help us, and yet it mostly works. She uses a long stream of micro images to draw us along. Twelve inch blade (oh, my), a late shout, a stab in the chest, flailing, changing look on face, blade falls, glittering chain mail, horse flank, horse mouth, horse hooves, rearing horse, head wound. Semi long shot as the bad guys converge. And we're out. Keep the eye moving around and things seem to speed along, no matter how long the sentences, and no matter how you feel about a face showing vindictive fury.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Garret, who is six, loves sword fights. This obsession started last summer, when he would stop all play and challenge me to a light saber fight. For this, you need to make two fists, stack them one on top of the other as though gripping a baseball bat, then undulate your arms and elbows as though swinging an invisible sword of light. It helps if there are convincing sound effects such as the low hum of the light, and the kish, kish sound whenever these invisible swords might connect.
(A few years ago, I did a radio story on birding, the team called itself the Wicked Pishers. Pishing is making the exact sound of the word, making a "pish" sound to flush birds out, really "PSHH, PSHH." Try it sometime out in the back yard. Stand next to a bird feeder, if possible. Birds loathe this sound and immediately start chattering to each other, warning each other of danger.)
So, I guess this could be called kishing, and Garret and I are the Wicked Kishers as we dash around the living room pretending to fight. Sometimes we miss and our knuckles collide, which hurts like hell. The object is to "get" the other person who then falls down with closed eyes. Garret takes these deaths scenes very seriously. He jerks as if absorbing a blow, drops the imaginary sword and just keels over. It's really classy stuff, daytime Emmy quality. When I go down, I look like an old lady finding a seat on the bus. Slow motion squat with one hand exploring the terrain behind me, and all the while whispering, "OK. OK. Here we go." The next step is that the victor gets to revive the loser using tickle power. That means sneaking up on this loser who is lying quietly, lifting the shirt and tickling the bare skin. Garret also uses cold hand power, and believe me, his little mitts are like ice. The G-man has further lobbied to be allowed to use fart power to revive the mommy person, but here I draw the line.
The only trouble is that he wants to do this all the time, morning, noon and night. I've resorted to rationing these fights. Once, I told him I couldn't fight him until I'd folded this huge mound of laundry. He pulled his shirts out of the pile, folded them and put them away. I nearly cried. Also, Garret is not a big fan of taking turns. (Well, who is?) Once, we were kishing away and he wouldn't go down. I mean I really got him a couple of times. But he just wouldn't fall down. He kept laughing at me. Finally, I got annoyed and said this: "I've killed you twice! Why won't you die?" Garret found this hilarious, but was good enough to stifle his laughter behind pursed lips. This is when Larry poked his head around the corner and said, "You're the one writing a parenting book, right?"
THE EXERCISE: Write a fight scene, one that is physical as well as verbal. The difficulty would appear to lie in presenting action, and speed of action, without getting bogged down in physical detail. I've been scouring my bookshelves for a good example and can't find it. I've got The Count of Monte Cristo, but it's on audiobook (35 discs! Still, if you have to have a companion on the treadmill, a voice in your ear, it might as well be Dumas.) I skimmed Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. Nothing doing. Will keep searching, and drafting possibilities.
Monday, February 4, 2008
First thing that happened when I landed back in Boston after the bowling extravaganza was to get edits on the proposal from the agency. Multiple co-author confabs over the weekend, including one following the Super Bowl, yielded revisions that went back to the agency today. Fingers crossed all around.
Sunday, February 3, 2008
I did a dumb thing. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Clever, in fact, but perhaps all bad ideas sound clever at first.
I was tooling around the internet, looking up information about the actors in the Seafarer. (Unfortunately the obsession has been slow to die). To Larry, I refer to these guys as my five thespian boyfriends. He sighs at this, as he is a man of infinite patience.
So, one of these guys did a little interview with some Broadway website. Yep, this is what kind of publicity stage actors get--if they're lucky. Some intern from a website asks how thrilled you are to be here, and you pretty much have to say that you're really, really thrilled, over and over again and then they write it up in seven paragraphs. I guess the reporter must have spent a lot of time trying to nuance this thrill, not only his ongoing present thrill at being on Broadway but the thrill he must surely have experienced in even greater intensity the very first time he was on Broadway seven years ago for Stones in His Pockets. The actor in question went along gamely with all this, it seems, going so far as to say that one of the fun things about being on Broadway back then was going bowling on Thursday nights after the show.
Um, what? A Broadway bowling league? Wait a second, I thought. I'm a sportswriter. I can pitch this. And I did, without thinking it through. Off went the instant email to the producer of the show I work for sometimes. It came back in 20 minutes, some kind of record. Yep, we want it. Tooled around the internet for another five minutes looking for an email address of someone connected to the league. Fired off another email. Do you mind having a radio reporter around one night? It came back instantly. No problem. Come on down.
For five days I was insufferable. Don't say obsession never yielded anything good, I said to Larry, if only to watch him suck in his cheeks and do his little head shake. The Stones in His Pockets guy is putting money in my pockets. More head shakes.
Hotel reservations, train reservations made. All well and good. Then I sent off a last-minute email to the co-commissioner of this bowling league. Can you tell me which teams to focus on? I don't know the Broadway shows. Only have seen the Seafarer. The email came back: Oh, they've got a team this year. I'll check with the cast, see if they're willing to chat. Check the website for other team names and cast member names.
The bottom dropped out of my stomach. I checked the website. The cast in question was well represented. Too well. Hello, Mr. Star-Crush, Mr. Actor-I've-Long-Admired. No. No. No. No. No. I ran downstairs where Larry was watching Scrubs. He's always watching Scrubs, so he's easy to find. "I can't go," I said. "I can't talk to him. I can't even look at him."
Larry glanced at me and then back to the TV. "You're pathetic," he said. Oh, absolutely. This is a known fact. Tell me something useful.
"People hate reporters," I said. "I can't be a reporter." It's true. People do hate reporters, especially at events like this. We're the gate crashers; the utterly uninvited. A reporter is a tolerable nuisance, a fly to be swatted away. Sure, there is a kind of social fluidity at play here. I can talk to anyone at this event, but only about one thing, about bowling. This is my fate, to stand in his presence, if I can do it without throwing up, and ask about bowling and only bowling.
The only other option, the A+++ professionalism award-winning option, is to ignore them all. Big blank space in the middle of the room. That means, get on the train, ride for four hours, check into a hotel, show up at the event at 11p.m. and interview absolutely everyone else in the room, but not him. Not any of them. Not a single glance in their direction, wherever that might be. Can't do it.
Apparently, the end of this little rant coincided with a commercial break on Scrubs, because Larry rallied with advice.
"You could say, 'My husband and I saw the play, and we really liked it.' You could say that much."
"No. That's completely personal, and irrelevant." And fannish, and creepy and wrong.
"There's nothing wrong with being nice," said Larry.
"Right. To which he would say, 'Who gives a sh*t what you think. Who the hell asked you?' "
"Right," said Larry. "This is how sane people usually respond to compliments." I looked at him pleadingly.
"OK," said Larry, looking very serious. "What you should say is, 'My husband, who is six feet two and 230 pounds of twisted steel, took me to see the play. We really liked it.' "
"My husband who looks like Clooney?" I offered.
"But taller," said Larry. (It's true. The morning after we saw the play in NYC, we went out for breakfast. A man with long, thin hair and John Lennon glasses stared at Larry so hard, watched us all the way to the table. After we sat down, I said through clenched teeth, "What's that guy looking at?" Larry said, "He thinks he sees Clooney." To which I said, "Yeah? Clooney wishes he had your shoulders.")
This wasn't my only problem. "I can't do it."
"You can say it after, after the interview." That wasn't the point. The point was that the interview, if it happened, would be perfunctory, like any exchange of its kind. Over in a flash and meaningless.
Larry had one more question. "Do you really have to go tomorrow? If you wait a week, I'll go with you." I told him my contact wouldn't be there the next week. The following week is Valentine's day, and after that, I'm teaching on Thursdays. Truthful statements all, but they sounded like lies. Larry looked at me. He took a long gaze and said, "Well, then you better go."
Saturday, February 2, 2008
THE EXERCISE: I think this exercise comes from the book What If, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I've seen it several places. The idea is to write three statements or anecdotes, one of which is a lie. Try to make the lie as detailed and believable as possible. At the same time choose truths that seem quirky and unbelievable. Here goes.
1. I once had a cat named Stinker, who loved water. He lolled in puddles, played in the rain. Most cats hate water; it creeps them out. Stinker was no different as a kitten. Unfortunately for him, my cousin, Brian, often came to visit, and when he did, he liked to grab little Stinker and throw him into out above-ground pool, usually while I stood by, shrieking. I don't know how many times that cat almost drowned before he gave in and made his peace with being wet all the time. (Brian eventually grew up to be a very bad man. Torturing cats was just the beginning for him.) Later we moved and gave the cat to my aunt, who said that for the first six months, Stinker was continually scaring the bejesus out of her. She would find him sitting in cold dishwater, or laying in the tub as it filled with hot water, two eyes glowing up at her through the rising bubbles.
2. I have accepted an assignment to cover a weekly sporting event in Times Square, one frequented by Broadway stars and crews. Among them will likely be the actor Larry refers to as Mr. Flapjack Tits (or Mr. FT), because he bowls. He's an Irishman who bowls.
3. Professional wrestler Killer Kowalski once kissed me on the mouth. This happened in the middle of an interview. He looked at me with sudden anger at something I'd said, and then he grabbed my face in both hands and planted one on me. A nice one, no tongue. Because I'm from Nebraska, I pretended nothing had happened and the interview went on as usual.
The answer? As my three-year-old would say, "Tricked ya!" They are all true. Clearly I need more practice with this lying business. No wonder I struggle as a fiction writer.